Crime in Bed-Stuy is still far lower than it was even just a few years ago, but in some categories there have been increases since 2016.
The community must play a key role as “eyes and ears” in fighting crime, now more than than ever, says a group of residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood which has seen a recent spike in crime – bucking the downward trend across the city.
A spate of shootings in Bed-Stuy this year has renewed calls to bring back a Block Watcher program, under which residents and business owners receive training by the police in order to spot and report suspicious activities.
The group, led by the community district’s public safety committee chairwoman Stacey Ruffin, has been proposing a revival of the program to police officers at the district’s precincts for the last two years. “The program should be reinstated because it’s vital for the community, especially helpful for new residents to understand the district’s norms and learn how to watch out for their safety,” says Ms Ruffin, a long-time resident in the central Brooklyn neighborhood.
Spearheaded by the New York City Police Department, the Block Watcher program was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Each trained blockwatcher served a two-year term, during which they would be given a confidential serial number which they used to report crime or suspicious activities. Properties that house blockwatchers were also marked with a sign so that passers-by in distress could call on them for help.
The program was revived in 2013 across several neighborhoods, including Bed-Stuy and Astoria, and then halted again in recent years. Community affairs officers at the NYPD’s 79th and 81st precincts – which cover Bed-Stuy – confirmed that the program is no longer active, but would not say why it had been discontinued, or even when.
Changes and crime
Although Bed-Stuy has experienced a marked rebound since the 1980s, when crime and drugs were at a record high, residents are concerned by the recent uptick in murders, shootings, robberies and housing offences, among other felonies. For instance, shooting incidents in the 79th precinct fell by 85 per cent in the past 25 years, but rose again by 29 per cent in the last two years. In the 81st precinct, rape cases were down 77 per cent in the past 25 years but went up by 56 per cent between last and this year.
From the archives Crime Low, But Citizens Still Want to Fight It
Neighborhood watch groups may be associated with gated communities in the suburbs, but New York City has some of its own. And now, some in Brownsville are trying to fashion their own local law-enforcement effort. Read our 2014 story
Some think this could be triggered by the neighborhood’s fast-changing demography. New neighbors moving in from wealthier and safer districts might have let their guard down, giving criminals more opportunities to strike. For instance, retiree Ricardo Agcauili, also a Bed-Stuy resident, points to online communities of Bed-Stuy residents peppered with complaints of stolen parcels or bicycles left on their stoops.
“In cases like that, having a neighborhood watch group might be helpful, not only for spotting crime, but helping residents get acquainted to the norms of each community,” says Agcuaili.
While Bed-Stuy remains predominantly African-American, its black population has fallen from 64 per cent to 49 per cent from 2015 to 2017, according to the American Community Survey. The white population has more than doubled within the same two years, from 11 per cent to 27 per cent, while the proportions of Hispanics (20 per cent) and Asians (3 per cent) have held steady.
Ruffin and Daniel Fisher, president of the 81st precinct’s community council, think the NYPD’s reluctance is due to budget constraints, especially after it appointed neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs) in 2015 as liaisons between the police and the community. “Block watchers should work hand-in-hand with the NCOs. It will encourage residents to take greater ownership of their living environment,” Fisher says.
But will it work?
Professor John DeCarlo, who studies community policing and is based at the University of New Haven, said successful neighborhood watch groups share two primary characteristics. First, everyone in the community must committed to being vigilant. Second, the political will for the government to work with the community must be present.
“In many cases, because of residential mobility and other factors, there is not enough collective efficacy in a neighborhood for the block watch to take root and work. Another limitation would be a lack of staff, such that the city government is not able to respond adequately to the needs of the community,” says DeCarlo, who chairs the university’s department of criminal justice.
Another expert, assistant Professor Blake Randol from California State University-Stanislaus agreed that sustained commitment from the police and resident volunteers are necessary for such programs to be effective. “If blockwatch programs are implemented effectively, and in conjunction with other community-based policing programs, they can reduce citizen fear of crime. …Blockwatch programs particularly go a long way in terms of improving citizen trust in the police,” says Randol.
Robert Gangi, founder of the Police Reform Organizing Project, says he is skeptical of programs spearheaded by the police. “They tend to have a political agenda, and we know that the NYPD’s policies are often racially biased,” he says. “I have stronger support for grassroots initiatives where neighbors come together to watch out for one another. And there’s no stopping residents from coming up with something like that in their own.”
Brooklyn resident and activist Brian Cunningham agrees that neighborliness helps keep crime at bay. Cunningham, who is also deputy director of anti-gun violence campaign Save Our Streets, said his organization has been appealing to residents to take a stand against violence. After a shooting in Crown Heights last Wednesday, it distributed thousands of text messages and managed gathered 70 neighbors to the scene to “stand against crime.”
Elsewhere in New York City, some resident communities have been starting up their own neighborhood watch groups. For example, in Forest Hills and Bayside, both in Queens, some residents use a voice-activated mobile application to alert their personalized groups of friends and neighbors during emergencies.
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Max & Murphy co-hosts Jarrett Murphy and Ben Max spoke with WNYC’s David Furst on Weekend Edition about the State Senate races considered “in play” on November 6 and what the policy implications could be if the Senate remains in Republican hands or shifts to Democratic control.
One key factor: While polls indicate a lack of hotly contested statewide races (for governor, attorney general, comptroller, U.S. senator), competitive Congressional races could help Democrats generate the big turnout they might need to flip red seats blue.
One important caveat: Democratic control doesn’t necessarily transform the full progressive wish-list into reality. The size of the margin, the role of the governor and ideological differences within the Democratic caucus will be important factors long after the votes are counted.
Hear the Max & Murphy show every Wednesday from 5-6 p.m. on WBAI 99.5 FM.
Join us for a special, two-hour, live-audience Election Night show from 5-7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 6, at 388 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. RSVP here.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez made the promise of bringing in commercial rent control for small “mom and pop” businesses part of the Inwood rezoning plan which was approved in August.
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which proposes a form of commercial rent regulation, is slated for a City Council hearing this month—nearly a decade after the last public airing of the proposal by city lawmakers.
The controversial legislation, which will be the subject of an October 22nd hearing, has existed in some form since the 1980s. The last time the bill received a hearing was in 2009. City Limits wrote on the background of the proposal here in 2016.
“First of all this bill is about fairness and small businesses are in crisis. So many ‘mom and pop’ shops have created jobs in our community and we need to create better conditions on how small businesses are able to survive in our city,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview with City Limits. “It creates an equal playing field for both landlords and [commercial] tenants.”
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act (read the legislation here) proposes to give commercial tenant the right to a 10-year lease, or a shorter lease with the tenant’s agreement. The landlord must renew that lease unless there is a suffice reason to refuse a renewal such as regularly late lease payments or if the owner wants to reoccupy their property.
When the lease is due for renewal, the landlord and tenant would negotiate a new rent. If the both parties are not able to come to an agreement then they would present their cases to an independent arbitrator, who would determine the rent based on over a dozen criteria, including comparable rents in the area, the landlords’ expenses, the nature of the tenant’s business, how much the business is bound to a particular location and other factors. The bill would also give tenants the “right of first refusal” meaning that the tenant gets a chance to reject or accept the arbitrator’s designated rent. If the designated rent is rejected by the tenant, only then can the landlord proceed to seek a new tenant.
If the tenant decided to move or the business failed before the lease was up, current laws would apply, meaning landlords could sue to recover any money owed and the tenant could try to lessen their dues by helping the landlord find a new tenant.
“I am looking forward to this hearing,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in an email statement to City Limits. “It will provide an opportunity for stakeholders to present testimony in order for the Council to fully evaluate the bill on its merits. Preserving mom-and-pop shops is a top priority for me as Speaker.”
Over the decades, supporters of the bill have faced questions about its legality and economic impact, and it has generated strong opposition from the real-estate lobby.
“This bill is illegal and ignores market conditions. The retail market is experiencing a national transformation and successful retailers are adapting to change with creative new ways to attract customers. In New York City, retail employment is increasing, even though online shopping continues to change consumer behavior,” said John H. Banks, Real Estate Board of New York President, in a email statement to City Limits. “Vacancy rates fluctuate among individual retail corridors and rents are, in general, decreasing. The Council should focus its limited time, energy, and resources on solutions that will support small businesses instead of wasting millions of tax dollars defending an illegal bill that experts agree will be thrown out by the courts.”
A report issued in September by the New York Bar Association raised three main points of legal concerns about the bill. First,the report says, the city has no power to enact commercial rent control; the report notes: “Whether the power to enact legislation that mimics aspects of commercial rent control is within the City’s general health and welfare power has not been specifically decided by the courts.” Its second argument is that courts have turned down the city’s attempt at residential rent control and therefore it would be prove even more difficult for the city to regulate commercial rent. And finally, the Bar Association worried that SBJSA would create inconsistencies with state laws. “The enactment of the Bill would also create many inconsistencies with existing provisions of the State Real Property Law,” the report read. “While courts have permitted City laws to remain in effect when such laws were somewhat inconsistent with State laws addressing minor State interests, they have generally invalidated City laws that were inconsistent with State laws addressing significant State interests.”
The Constitution’s Contract Clause: No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.
Both in 1988 and 2008, SBJSA introduction was met with questions about whether the bill violated the Constitution’s “contract” clause, which forbids the government from “impairing” contracts between private individuals, and doubts about whether the city has any authority over commercial rent regulations. But corporation counsel lawyers in 1988 and the City Council legislative division in 2009 both concluded that the city did, in fact, have jurisdiction.
One backer of the bill, the Small Business Congress of New York City and its founder Sung Soo Kim, recently published an open letter to the chairperson of the City Council’s Small Business Committee, Mark Gjonaj, in the The Villager saying that the legal and economic concerns about the bill have never been proven while the dangers to small businesses are readily apparent.
“This is because government’s failure for the past decade to take any true actions to address the unfair commercial lease-renewal process has made a crisis grow worse. The outcome of our city’s one-sided lease-renewal process, where business owners have no rights in a hyper-speculative market, has produced record closings of long-established businesses — on average, 500 court evictions of businesses each month — out-of-control rent gouging, growing numbers of illegal extortions of cash demanded from mostly immigrant owners to remain in business, harsh short-term leases of sometimes month-to-month and one and two years, oppressive lease terms and empty storefronts on blocks where thriving businesses once stood,” Kim wrote.
A spokesperson from the city’s Law Department said the agency would not be commenting on the matter.
The Small Business Jobs Survival Act hearing is scheduled for Monday October 22, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. in City Council Chambers at City Hall. (Live video here.)
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November 6 will be a pivotal Election Night for New York and the country as midterm elections for Congress reshape the national landscape and the battle for the State Senate brings state policy to a crossroads.
The hosts of WBAI’s Max & Murphy show (heard every Wednesday on 99.5 FM from 5-6 p.m.), Ben Max of Gotham Gazette and Jarrett Murphy from City Limits, will do their Election Day show in front of a live audience at one of Brooklyn’s chillest cafes (Commons Cafe at 388 Atlantic Avenue).
During our special two-hour show, you can hear from candidates, journalists, analysts … and get a chance to weigh in on air yourself!
The old saying is that time and space are a reporter’s cruelest editors, and while the Internet and 24-hour cable channels have eased those restrictions somewhat, they haven’t changed the fact that readers and viewers only have so much time in a day.
So how do you use that short segment of time you manage to get people to devote to educating themselves before voters? Do you address in some depth and detail the ideas of the people most likely to win–those from the two parties in which most New York voters are registered? Or do you try to be more inclusive, bringing in third party candidates, even if that means less focus on each individual hopeful?
That’s the real challenge facing editors in an election year. Not every journalist worries about it, but more think about it than you might assume. The answers aren’t easy. It can be, and often is, a zero-sum game. While there’s no denying that all election coverage could be smarter and deeper, it’s less certain that there is an ideal approach to figuring out how you frame the choices facing voters.
The conversation Ben Max and I had with Larry Sharpe on Wednesday illustrates the case for being ,ore inclusive. Sharpe brought energy and eloquence to the phone line. Many of his ideas warranted deeper debate and analysis than we had time for. But he certainly had ideas.
Listen below to the full show, or just to our talk with Sharpe or our conversation with Republican attorney general candidate Keith Wofford.
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During the Democratic primary campaign for attorney general, there was a kerfuffle over whether Letitia James, the New York City public advocate and primary frontrunner, was trying to appeal to business interests when she said she didn’t want to be the “sheriff of Wall Street,” the title that one-time AG Elliot Spitzer had given himself. James rushed to clarify what she meant: She still wanted to crack down on corporate interests, she said, she simply wanted a title all her own.
Keith Wofford, the bankruptcy lawyer who is the Republican candidate for attorney general, rejects both that title and that orientation. To him, the state’s business climate has been poisoned by overreach by the attorney general’s office, which has used flimsy evidence and a powerful law (the Martin Act) to wage high-profile witch hunts that extracted money from innocent firms that went not to victims, but to the state itself.
It’s unclear that voters will be moved to much sympathy for payday lenders, banks that helped upend the housing market, and investment houses operating “dark pools”–some of the targets for action by former AG Eric Schneiderman–but Wofford certainly presents an alternative to the vision for the AG’s office proposed by James, the Democratic nominee. Some commentators have faulted Democrats for positioning the AG as a bulwark to Donald Trump; in a shift that would be at least as ambitious, Wofford would use the AG’s power to create a sort of help-desk for small businesses.
A face-to-face debate between these two (and perhaps another one also involving Green candidate Michael Sussman, Libertarian Chris Garvey and Reform Party nominee Nancy Sliwa) would present some pretty clear choices to voters. Right now, it’s unclear that will happen.
Hear the full show below or listen just to our talk with Wofford or Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Larry Sharpe.
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In the best of times, undocumented immigrants in New York City have faced significant barriers to accessing health care.
And these are not the best of times.
Low-income undocumented adults have never had many options for health coverage. They have thus frequently relied on emergency rooms—which serve everyone regardless of documentation status—as their provider of last resort. Thank goodness our society at least offers this protection (for now). But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the five boroughs without basic, primary medical care, with dire results for their own health and for our city as a whole.
And President Trump is making this situation even worse: the nearly unprecedented climate of fear created by his administration is making it more likely than ever that undocumented New Yorkers will avoid medical care altogether, at least until a crisis lands them in the ER.
Now Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has proposed an even more draconian action: a change to the “public charge” rules that would threaten the immigration status of even green card holders when they receive federal- or state-subsidized health insurance like Medicaid.
Our city can and must act locally to remedy this dangerous situation, to ensure that every New Yorker regardless of immigration status receives essential, primary care.
Fortunately, models put in place in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the pre-Trump era point to a sensible, cost-effective solution.
The idea is simple: create a program for uninsured New Yorkers that would give them a community-based, primary care home to receive regular preventive screenings and, if needed, chronic care management.
How do we know that such a plan would work in New York City? Because it already has.
In 2015 the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ran a pilot, funded by private philanthropy, to offer exactly this type of program to 1,200 participants.
The program, known as ActionHealthNYC, was open to low-income adults who were not eligible for publicly subsidized health insurance through Medicaid or New York State’s Affordable Care Act exchange. (In practice, that mostly means the undocumented).
Participants were able to pick a primary care location from among a group of participating community health clinics or public hospitals—the kinds of places where immigrants can get culturally attuned services in their own language, often in their own neighborhood.
Participants’ municipal ID was integrated with their health records and served as the program membership card. Members paid for services on a subsidized sliding fee scale, with referrals to specialty care as needed at our city’s public hospitals.
Most ActionHealth participants reported rarely—if ever—visiting doctors prior to enrollment. But once in the program, members benefited from high rates of screening, vaccinations, preventative care, and early diagnosis across a variety of diseases. A rigorous outside evaluation pronounced the program a demonstrable success.
And then in 2016, just months before the fateful election of Donald Trump, the ActionHealth program ended. It was never intended to be more than a limited, one-year pilot and didn’t have long-term funding.
Now, in 2018, the need for expanding health care access for the undocumented is greater than ever. And we need bold action.
It’s time for New York City to establish a full-scale immigrant health program, modeled on the success of ActionHealth and similar initiatives elsewhere.
This won’t just be good for the health of New Yorkers, it will also save our city money over the long term. That’s because treating medical problems early through primary care is much less expensive than waiting until patients land in the ER amidst a crisis.
Immigrants are under assault these days by the Trump administration. In the face of such hostility – especially with the proposed “public charge” rule change to further scare immigrants from seeking public benefits – it’s more important than ever that our city step up. Protecting the health of the most vulnerable immigrants is smart policy and fiscally prudent. And most importantly—it’s the right thing to do.
* * * *
City Council Member Mark Levine represents the 7th district in Manhattan and is Chair of the Health Committee. Council Member Carlos Menchaca, Chair of the Immigration Committee, represents the 38th district in Brooklyn.
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It is well known that the United States punishment system is the largest in the world, incarcerating over 2.2. million persons with nearly 7 million under supervision. Black and Latinx persons are over-represented in this massive system, accounting for 37 percent of the U.S. population but representing 67 percent of the prison population. Each year over 600,000 persons return from prison to their home communities to confront an array of challenges.
Less well known are the ways in which punishment and incarceration affect individuals, families, social networks, and communities–a contagion that spreads separation, violence and trauma. The effects of incarceration—often referred to as “collateral consequences”—include disruptions to education, training, marriage and other significant life events that can create near insuperable barriers to reconnecting with society, impairing the ability to obtain housing, employment, healthcare and more by, among other things, tarring those who have encountered the punishment system with what Harvard Professor Devah Pager calls the indelible “mark of a criminal record.”
The costs of punishment extend beyond directly impacted persons and communities and exacerbate existing exclusions produced by America’s interlocking power structures. Punishment secured by violence is now a cultural fixture and an economic structure that victimizes all citizens. To understand how this multi-headed hydra has taken root, we take a longer view.
Racial subjugation and the violence it spurred can be traced back to American colonization and the appropriating of Native American land and quelling the threat of insurrection. Slavery was contained by violence, Jim Crow was enforced by violence through lynching, Klan activity and the razing of black towns all over the U.S. like Tulsa, Okla., and Rosewood, Fla.
Punishment and exclusion were also perpetrated through less visible, racialized socio-economic policies highlighted in The Case for Reparations (2015)—Ta-Nehisi Coate’s story of Clyde Ross, a man from a black sharecropping family in Mississippi who traveled to Chicago in pursuit of “protection of the law.” Discriminatory policies largely disqualified blacks from New Deal programs like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, access to the G.I. Bill, and other critical aspects of the social welfare network, and subjected blacks to restrictive covenants in housing, redlining in lending, and outright discrimination in employment. The Civil Rights and other social justice movements of the 1960s were snuffed out by FBI infiltration and assassination.
Today black and brown persons are disproportionately excluded from the electorate and economy and subject to police violence: Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, Botham Jean, to name a few. Prison entrepreneurialism and the prison economy are booming, made more visible by the expansion of the network of ICE detention centers, prison labor that continually pushes deeper into home communities (such as inmates fighting fires in California for $1.00 per hour) and the recent 17-state prison strike that ended in September. And the routine expression of brutality bleeds into the whole of society, as witnessed by the shootings at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas (59 dead), the Parkland High school (17 dead) and Pulse Night Club (49 dead).
The use of socially justified violence to secure dominance, whether under the banner of enforcement, punishment, or social convention, along with demonizing narratives used to justify such dominance over marginalized groups is an obstacle to the experience of citizenship: the ability to fully access and participate in the relationships, institutions and protections of one’s community.
Integral to social citizenship are what people need to live and to fully participate in the life of the community – “human rights,” as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The UDHR principles were laid as a foundation to help assure a new era of peace and justice among nations following the destruction and human suffering of the Second World War. Among its five core notions are human dignity; non-discrimination; civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; and solidarity rights. Arguably Article 27, which guarantees the “free participation in the cultural life of the community” is a meta-right, encapsulating all of what the UDHR highlights as necessary for human life since a person cannot freely participate in community culture – its way of doing things – without the ability to exercise all rights as human beings. Therefore, full participation is required to be a functioning part of the community.
Punishment-impacted persons are pushed to the margins well beyond time served in prison – often for their entire lives. The stigma associated with imprisonment affects every aspect of a person’s life – from obtaining housing and employment, to voting, education, and the possibility of family reunification. Separation from community life reinforces the necessity for reconciliation affirmed both by community and by law. One small step in bringing about that reconciliation is expungement, a process that erases court-held conviction records and enables persons with criminal conviction histories to hurdle over barriers to full participation that formerly stopped them cold. Expungement’s focus on ending the stigma and negative impact is also an expression of the community’s commitment to remove the mark of exclusion associated with punishment and containment, affirming that returning persons and their families have a place.
A conference this week hosted by the Community Service Society aims to elevate the conversation on criminal records expungement through a series of panels, breakout groups, dialogue, advocacy workshops, art exhibits, theatrical and musical performances. The “Full Participation is a Human Right – Moving Beyond Punishment,” conference begins Thursday, October 11, and runs through Sunday, October 14, at the Community Church of New York (CCNY) located at 40 E. 35th Street, NYC, and at the Commons, located at 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn. For a full list of conference speakers, events and activities please go to: https://www.full-participation.org/
Art and dialogue help people to understand themselves and the human condition, allowing us to better see what we are doing to each other. It is hoped that the ideas, beliefs, values and experiences explored over the coming days, starting with informed conversation and exchanges about personal experience, is the beginning of an answer.
Kimberly Westcott is an associate counsel with the Community Service Society of New York.
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At the Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side on a recent Thursday. Twenty people come from all boroughs of the city traveling by subway and bus, to one of the few places that has an evidence-based intensive English class for older New Yorkers.
New York City is aging, fast–a demographic fact creating huge opportunities and challenges for residents old and young. Read City Limits’ ongoing coverage of older New York and the issues it’s facing here.
Yumei Wang, 79, has a modest dream. She would, for the first time in her adult life, like to open her mail and understand what the words on the paper mean.
Wang came to New York from China when she was 18 years old and worked as a nanny for many years. She relied on her husband’s English, and then later her son’s, otherwise staying in Chinatown herself. Wang’s son is now grown and lives independently, and her husband died last year. On top of Wang’s grief are piles of worry about accomplishing daily tasks like writing her rent check and paying her cable bill without understanding them or knowing how to write in English.
Similarly, Eliena Wong, 72, has a basic hope. Wong wants to be able to call the police or to ask for help in an emergency.
“I go outside and take the subway. I feel so nervous,” Wong says. “If I make a mistake and something broken (in the subway), I need to get home. If something is wrong, how can I call someone to help me? I do not understand.”
There are 1.6 million people over age 60 in New York City, which is about 19 percent of the city’s overall population (or the size of the entire population of Philadelphia). Demographers expect that New York’s population 60+ will have increased by almost 50 percent between 2000 to 2040.
By and large, these older New Yorkers are immigrants. The growth in New York’s older immigrant population has far outpaced that of the U.S.-born senior population. According to the U.S. Census, while the number of native-born seniors in New York grew just 6 percent from 2010 to 2015, the number of immigrant seniors jumped 21 percent.
While many older immigrants have lived, worked and been a part of communities in New York for most of their adult lives, many have never learned English. Others have come to New York recently, usually to join children and grandchildren.
According to the Center for an Urban Future, 59 percent of older immigrants in New York speak English less than very well. And 36 percent of older immigrants live in what is called “linguistically isolated households,” meaning that nobody in a given household over the age of 14 speaks English.
The ramifications of having several hundred thousand older people who are unable to communicate in English – to understand our city’s systems or contribute the way that they would like – has tremendous implications for the city’s economy, its healthcare systems and for the children and grandchildren these older New Yorkers have and are still raising. Studies conducted over the last decade also show that literacy affects how long people live.
Yet, the prevailing presumption amongst policymakers at the national level, and those who focus on literacy and adult education in the city, is that older people are not a priority for adult education.
“There is a myth we have that older people don’t want to learn if they haven’t learned English already. If they lived here long enough, they don’t want to learn or cannot learn,” says Karen Taylor, Director of the Weinberg Center for Balanced Living at the Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side, which offers one of the city’s only English as a Second Language classes for older adults.
The research on older adult language learning is thin, but studies do show that while people’s speed of cognitive functioning slows as they age, there is still a great capacity to learn new skills and languages. One recent study suggests that older adults can reach high levels of new-language acquisition if they are just given more time than those who are younger.
In the U.S. overall, despite the fact that many retirees have more time for learning, just 3.6 percent of adult education participants are 60+, according to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education’s National Reporting System.
This is largely because government funding for adult education has increasingly prioritized workforce outcomes which are tracked based on people’s Social Security numbers and the employment and wage gains they achieve. The 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the largest provider of funding for English and literacy classes, prioritizes students earning high school equivalency and college degrees. Providers vying for funding seek out students with the potential to get their degrees or go to work, and they avoid enrolling others.
John Hunt is executive director for Adult Continuing Education at LaGuardia Community College, where they have 500 students a semester taking English classes, and where there are hundreds of people on the waitlist at any given time.
“When we switched over to this new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, we are asking (potential students) for wage gains and employment status, and being unavailable for a job is not a valid status,” Hunt says. “Programs choose not to enroll seniors because they aren’t going to get job entry gains, wage gains. It won’t help us.”
Hunt says that his programs reach out to potential students on the waiting list who plan to work, but older adults are not called back.
“If seniors come because they are isolated and we turn them away, I don’t know what happens to them,” Hunt says.
Similarly, Michael Hunter, the program director for Adult Literacy at University Settlement, which serves 1,000 adults a year in literacy and English classes, says that there are very few spots available for the general population, or those who will not have clear workforce outcomes or children or grandchildren whom they are raising.
“I think that if I compare it to how we think of children, we don’t value adults, let alone seniors,” he says.
For the past few years, Mayor de Blasio has excluded the $12 million in city funds spent on adult education from his proposed budget. The adult education community, led by the New York City Literacy Coalition, a coalition of about 50 member organizations, responds with thousand-person marches, and the money has routinely been reinstated.
Service providers like Hunt and Hunter are left vying for federal, state and local money annually and having to impress with numbers that show the educational degrees their students have earned, that they are newly employed or making more money.
This change in funding has also led to more time-intensive classes for fewer students. In 2014, in New York State, 102,784 people participated in adult education, as compared to 176,239 in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In New York City, there are about 60,000 students taking English and literacy classes, said Kevin Douglas, Co-director of Policy and Advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses and head of the New York City Literacy Coalition.
And at the macro level, while Taiwan and the European Union have established strategies and goals for lifelong learning, the U.S. has not. According to an annual report the U.S. submits to UNESCO, an agency of the United Nations that promotes education for all, older adults are not one of the country’s target groups for adult education.
Also relevant is a report put out by the U.S. Department of Education this year on digital literacy or people’s comfort using technology, another critical skill. The study only measures people up to age 65, despite older people being the least adept at technology. “Older adults” are referred to in the report, but they are those ages 45-65.
Back at the Manny Cantor Center, on a recent Thursday, 20 people come from all boroughs of the city traveling by subway and bus, to one of the few places that has an evidence-based intensive English class (two three-hour sessions a week) with all older students. Many of the students have low levels of literacy in any language and never went to high school in their home countries.
Christine Green, the teacher, has been teaching English to adult learners for more than 20 years. She has had to adapt to her class – be less rigid, accept slower growth, allow them to make more grammar mistakes – to keep up their motivation. Her students who have been there for four years all started at level 0 and are now at a level 3 or 4. In her other classes, they would have mostly reached the highest level 7 with this level of commitment.
At a recent class, they dissected and took turns reading a passage about common misunderstandings in English. Even during the break, they copied sentences, used Google translate on their phones and wrote new words and their definitions. Since their English has improved, several of them have become volunteers at the center and brought other friends in.
“For me, it’s impressive. They make me see anything is possible,” Green, their teacher said.
Most of Green’s students are Chinese speakers. In New York, 92 percent of older Chinese speakers are less than proficient in English. Similarly, immigrants from Korea and the former USSR and Russia almost universally have low levels of English proficiency (94 percent and 91 percent, respectively). Older adults who speak languages that use the Latin alphabet (as English does) are more likely to have English proficiency. For example, 67 percent of older New Yorkers from Italy, Poland and Puerto Rico, are less than proficient in English.
Yumei Lang, who dreams of reading her mail, only joined the class a few months ago. She has since been able to read a letter that came in the mail for the first time, understanding that it was from a friend in Virginia who invited her to visit.
Eliena Wong says she can now speak enough English to call the police.
Another classmate, Frances Yip, 64, of the the Lower East Side, was a seamstress and raised three children in New York. She has been taking the twice-a-week English class for two years. She says her motivation comes from one incident several years ago when she went to the hospital for what turned out to be a blood pressure spike.
“My English was bad. They ask me a question. I had to wait a long time to find a person to translate. I felt very uncomfortable. It was hard to breathe. My children were at work. I called my sister to call an ambulance,” she said. “Then I recently hurt my hand. Most questions the doctor asks, I can answer.”
Another classmate, Wen Fei Liang, 64, came to the U.S. from China in 1991 to work in a garment factory. She has had polio since she was a child and relies on a wheelchair to get around the city. Since taking classes, she says, she can navigate her way on the bus on her wheelchair alone and get to the hospital.
“I communicate with my doctor. I can describe my symptoms and make a decision for me,” she says. “Before I just stayed at home. I couldn’t walk a lot. I’m more active now.”
Liang says her dream is to go to college, although for now she is content that she can help her 94-year-old mother, who lives with her.
“Now I can help my mother because I understand. I help my neighbor read English letter, and I help my neighbor make a doctor’s appointment using English,” she says. “Little by little. I’m learning.”
Veterans in the field say progress of the type Liang has enjoyed could be generated for a much broader segment of the non-English-literate senior population, but it will take some adjustment.
First, adult education for people of all ages must be prioritized before people reach older age, especially for women not in the traditional workforce, so that they do not arrive at older age, when it is harder to learn, without basic English proficiency.
Given that some people will need help when they are older, teachers will need to adjust their expectations on speed of progress and focus on students’ goals, says Green, who has been teaching English to adults for more than 20 years. Classes must be available where older people are in the majority to encourage participation and comfort, say older adults we interviewed. More flexible funding for English classes is needed that values outcomes like increased civic engagement or increased capacity to manage daily tasks, rather than only workforce outcomes.
A culture shift and new messaging that debunks ageist attitudes like “you can’t teach a dog new tricks,” attitudes which are absorbed by us all from childhood onward, are a big part of the picture. But so is money, starting with the city’s: By not building funding for older-adult English instruction into the annual budget, it appears and is a lesser priority, says the New York City Literacy Coalition.
Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of New America NYC.
Leavenworth Federal Correctional Institution, where one of the Newburgh Four, Onta Williams, is serving a sentence due to end in 2031.
The upstate limo accident that killed 20 people this weekend—the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since a 2009 plane crash—has generated outpourings of sympathy. It has prompted Gov. Cuomo to order flags to half-staff. It has prompted questions about whether the limousine industry could use additional regulation. And it has triggered references to an otherwise forgotten case of alleged terrorism that had two targets in the Bronx.
Published reports indicate the owner of the limousine company was Shahed Hussain, and that he’d been a key FBI informant in at least two terrorism cases—after pleading guilty himself to a federal fraud charge related to helping immigrants cheat their way to getting drivers’ licenses.
One of those cases was the case of the Newburgh Four. That group of four men—James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen—was arrested in 2009 for planning to blow up a synagogue and Jewish community center in the Bronx and to shoot down military aircraft at Stewart Air Force Base. They were convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
At the time of the arrests, leaders seized on the story as justification for their counter-terrorism policies. “This latest attempt to attack our freedoms shows that the homeland security threats against New York City are sadly all too real and underscores why we must remain vigilant in our efforts to prevent terrorism,” was the response from Mayor Bloomberg, whose administration sent detectives to catalog mosques and Middle Eastern restaurants, surveiled Muslim student activists in other states and crafted an academic rationale for the profiling of Muslims.
But there was less to the Newburgh Four case than the initial reports (the Associated Press indicated the men were “bent on carrying out a holy war against America”) indicated—because there was more Shahed Hussain to the case than the government at first let on.
The judge in the case, District Judge Colleen McMahon, detailed Hussain’s involvement in a post-trial ruling issued in 2011:
The government indisputably ‘manufactured’ the crimes of which defendants stand convicted. The government invented all of the details of the scheme – many of them, such as the trip to Connecticut and the inclusion of Stewart AFB as a target, for specific legal purposes of which the defendants could not possibly have been aware (the former gave rise to federal jurisdiction and the latter mandated a twenty-five year minimum sentence). The government selected the targets. The government designed and built the phony ordnance that the defendants planted (or planned to plant) at government-selected targets. The government provided every item used in the plot: cameras, cell phones, cars, maps and even a gun. The government did all the driving (as none of the defendants had a car or a driver’s license). The government funded the entire project. And the government, through its agent, offered the defendants large sums of money, contingent on their participation in the heinous scheme.
McMahon also alluded to the critical role played by Hussain.
Additionally, before deciding that the defendants (particularly Cromitie, who was in their sights for nine months) presented any real danger, the government appears to have done minimal due diligence, relying instead on reports from its confidential information, who passed on information about Cromitie—information that could easily have been verified (or not verified, since much of it was untrue), but that no one thought it necessary to check before offering a jihadist opportunity to a man who had no contact with any extremist groups and no history of anything other than drug crimes.
McMahon also noted that, “in structuring the crime, the government saw fit to create roles for persons other than Cromitie – who at least had uttered malicious and threatening statements about Jews and the United States – and to offer those roles to individuals who had no history of terrorist leanings.”
Although she expressed deep reservations about the case even at the sentencing of the men—”I’m not proud of my government for what it did in this case,” she said—McMahon ruled the government’s conduct did not rise to the level of entrapment. But that ruling was partly based on the fact that the FBI relied upon the claims of its informant, Hussain, about initial contacts between him and Cromitie before the government began taping their encounters.
As McMahon’s ruling details, Cromitie expressed hate for Jews and anger over U.S. treatment of Muslims, and expressed interest in violence at some points, but also stepped away from those statements at times and showed reluctance to participate.
In the end, of course, he and his co-conspirators obtained the fake weapons, cased their targets and moved ahead with what they thought was going to be a horrible crime. That’s likely why the defendants’ appeal was rejected in 2013.
Separate suits by Cromitie, who claimed he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel because his mental health had never been adequately assessed, and Onta Williams, who contended he was profiled for being a Muslim, also have not had success. Payen filed a suit alleging mistreatment in prison. In a sad indication of his sense of the world, the relief he asked for included “to see my son” and “3 trillion.”
The Newburgh case was the subject of a documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” released four years ago. But it has otherwise faded in with a blur of other questionable prosecutions from that era, including that of the Shahawar Matin Siraj, whom an informant helped develop the so-called Herald Square bomb plot, and Syed Hashmi, the Queens man convicted of material support to al Qaeda partly on secret evidence and the word of another informant.
Whatever the role of the limo company in the Schoharie tragedy, and whatever Hussain’s role in the company, the events of 2018 don’t retroactively undermine the Newburgh Four case, such as it was. They do raise the uncomfortable question of whether Cromitie, Payen, Williams and Williams—now doing time at the federal prisons at Allenwood, Leavenworth, Loretto or Springfield and due out between August 2030 and January 2032—were ever going to hurt anywhere near as many people as died at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 30A.
I asked Sam Braverman, one of the lawyers for Payen, if the Newburgh case had set a precedent for terrorism cases, and if so, what it was.
“I think the only take away is that in the end, law enforcement believes that this was a successful prosecution, and something to be imitated. The conviction was sustained at every level on appeal, and whatever reservations anybody may have had about the tactics, society has approved at these tactics and uses them repeatedly,” he emailed. “The people who are most opposed to these types of tactics have been unable to persuade law enforcement or society over the years that the entrapment of poor disenfranchised young men is no way to protect society.”